Take Your Shoot to the Next Level

How to get a big-budget look from a small operation.


Creating great imagery takes more than the latest iPhone and an Instagram account. Maybe you’re a budding filmmaker, photographer, or a small business that needs some good promo. 

Wherever you are in your journey, it’s daunting to compete with the big guys. But there are simple things you can do to make great content on a small budget.

Keep reading for some tips on swimming in a big pond with the best of them.

Draw Inspiration From The Pros

Mike Mckay, creative director at Five2Nine, never shuts off his creative brain. He saw the 2019 film 1917 twice- once as an audience member and the next time as a filmmaker. “I watched it through the eyes of a Cinematographer,” he says. “I was just blown away and fascinated.”

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The Five2Nine Team is passionate about getting the right shot.

Learn the mechanics of your taste level. Once you’ve seen something you like, ask yourself why. Then do all the research you can. 

Most filmmakers and photographers will talk about their process. Look for interviews, featurettes, and commentary. Take advantage and take notes. You may not have access to the same equipment, but you can steal an idea or two with some creativity.

Be Patient

In the pursuit of great gear on a small budget, you aren’t going to get everything overnight. 

“From the shooting standpoint, it’s really difficult for a business to go in and shoot super high quality without investing like 100 grand in gear,” McKay says. 

“One of the fun things that I’ve always done is, I’m on top of Kijiji all the time, and always thinking about finding really good deals on camera equipment, lenses, all of these things we’re having to use every day but are really high ticket items.”

The Five2Nine team, for example, has an easy rig gimbal system McKay put together with used finds.

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DOP Dylan Page meets Franken-rig.

Thanks to its creative assembly, it has earned the nickname ‘Franken-rig’. 

“The thing looks ugly,” he says. “But it’s a setup you would see on a Hollywood production.”

McKay says knowing what you want and staying patient can lead to great results down the line.

Lighting & Post Production

Waiting for a deal on your dream camera? That doesn’t mean you can’t get a big-budget look with what you have. 

If you don’t have great lighting equipment, it shows. Tom Mountain Jr., an editor on the Five2Nine team, says to utilize natural light.

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Tom Mountain Jr. in some of that gorgeous natural light.

“If you can shoot around magic hour which is once that sun is starting to set, you really don’t need anything,” he says. “It’s going to look gorgeous, it’s the best time of day.”

Mountain Jr. also recommends a couple of budget-friendly bounce boards. And don’t forget those finishing touches. 

“Colour correction goes a long way, and that’s something that kind of gets overlooked because it’s that last step. It can make something go from… I want to say even 60% to 100 if it’s done right,” Mountain Jr. says. “You can make some pretty affordable cameras look much more expensive with the proper colour correction.”

We’re living in a golden age of tutorials, workshops, and all kinds of accessible learning. Why not take advantage? Which brings us to the next point:

Stay Sharp

“You can have the best gear in the world, but if you don’t know how to use it- what good is it?” Says McKay. Even with the most stunning result, he’s looking for a way to do better next time. 

McKay says he encourages the Five2Nine team to stay ahead of the curve. “You can’t depend on the tools to allow you to get the job done,” he says. “You have to work on yourself as well.”

Map Out Your Shoots

If you’ve hired people to help out for the day, you want to make good use of their time and your money. Go into a shoot knowing exactly what you want and how you plan to get it.

Dylan Page, director of photography at Five2Nine, says to stay on track. With some room for surprises.

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The Five2Nine Team in Action.

“Having a good shot list gives you a good baseline of what you need to go and get. When you’re scrubbing for ideas on what we can do next you can always fall back on that,” he says.

Sometimes, his artistic side takes over and he finds something fascinating on the day. “Whether it be a certain splash or a certain sunbeam that’s hitting something… I’ll sometimes sort of fall into a trance and get an hour of shots,” he says. “And Mike’s like ‘come back, we gotta get back to the shot list!’” 

Having a plan means there’s something to come back to when inspiration takes you down a new path.

Less is More

When you’re just starting out- showcase your best work. To look prolific, many small company websites will link to every one of their projects. But this may have the opposite effect. 

Mountain Jr. says when he started out, he invested some time into making a killer demo reel. It’s a great way to focus on your best bits and pieces, and looks more professional to a potential client.


In today’s online landscape, quality visuals are essential. Take the time to do yours right. Focus on building a dedicated team, doing a great job with what you have, and those big-budget shoots may be just around the corner.